Blazing Saddles is a 1974 American satirical comedy-western film directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, the film was written by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Al Uger, and was based on Bergman's story and draft. The film received generally positive reviews from critics and audiences, was nominated for three Academy Awards and is ranked No. 6 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs list.
|Directed by||Mel Brooks|
|Produced by||Michael Hertzberg|
|Story by||Andrew Bergman|
|Music by||John Morris|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$119.6 million|
Brooks appears in three supporting roles, Governor William J. Le Petomane, a Yiddish-speaking Native American chief and "a director" in line to help invade Rock Ridge (a nod to Hitchcock); he also dubs lines for one of Lili von Shtupp's backing troupe. The supporting cast includes Slim Pickens, Alex Karras and David Huddleston, as well as Brooks regulars Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn and Harvey Korman. Bandleader Count Basie has a cameo as himself.
The film satirizes the racism obscured by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American West, with the hero being a black sheriff in an all-white town. The film is full of deliberate anachronisms, from the Count Basie Orchestra playing "April in Paris" in the Wild West, to Slim Pickens referring to the Wide World of Sports, to the German army of World War II.
On the American frontier of 1874, a new railroad will soon be rerouted through Rock Ridge, in order to avoid running through quicksand. Realizing this will make Rock Ridge worth millions, the conniving attorney general Hedley Lamarr (named after Hedy Lamarr) wants to force Rock Ridge's residents to abandon their town, and sends a gang of thugs, led by his flunky Taggart, to shoot the sheriff and trash the town. The townspeople demand that Governor William J. Le Petomane (named after Le Petomane) appoint a new sheriff to protect them. Lamarr persuades the dim-witted Le Petomane to appoint Bart, a black railroad worker, who was about to be executed for assaulting Taggart earlier. A black sheriff, he reasons, will offend the townspeople, create chaos, and leave the town at his mercy.
After an initial hostile reception (where Sheriff Bart has to take himself hostage to escape), he relies on his quick wits and the assistance of Jim, an alcoholic gunslinger known as the "Waco Kid," to overcome the townspeople's hostility. He subdues Mongo, an immensely strong, dim-witted, but philosophical henchman sent to kill him, then he beats German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtüpp at her own game, with Lili falling in love with him. Upon Mongo's release, he vaguely informs Bart of Lamarr's connection to the railroad, so Bart and Jim visit the railroad work site and discover from Charlie, Bart's best friend, that the railway is planned to go through Rock Ridge. Just as Taggart and his men arrive to kill Bart, Jim outshoots the thugs, forcing Taggart to retreat to Lamarr. Lamarr, furious that his schemes have backfired, hatches a larger plan involving a recruited army of thugs, including common criminals, Ku Klux Klansmen, Nazis, and Methodists.
Three miles east of Rock Ridge, Bart introduces the white townspeople to the black, Chinese, and Irish railroad workers, who have agreed to help in exchange for acceptance by the community, and explains his plan to defeat Lamarr's army. They labor all night to build a perfect replica of their town, as a diversion; with no people in it, though, Bart realizes it will not fool the villains. While the townspeople construct replicas of themselves, Bart, Jim, and Mongo buy time by constructing the "Gov. William J. Le Petomane Thruway", forcing the raiding party to turn back for "a shitload of dimes" to pay the toll. Once through the tollbooth, the raiders attack the fake town populated with dummies, which are booby-trapped with dynamite bombs. After Jim detonates the bombs with his sharpshooting, launching bad guys and horses skyward, the Rock Ridgers storm the villains.
The resulting brawl between townsfolk, railroad workers, and Lamarr's thugs literally breaks the fourth wall as the fight spills onto a neighboring set, where director Buddy Bizarre is directing a Busby Berkeley-style top-hat-and-tails musical number; then into the studio commissary for a food fight; and then out of the Warner Bros. film lot into the streets of Burbank. Lamarr, realizing he has been beaten, hails a taxi and orders the driver to "drive me off this picture". He ducks into Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which is playing the premiere of Blazing Saddles. As he settles into his seat, he sees Bart arriving on horseback outside the theatre. Bart blocks Lamarr's escape, and then shoots him in the groin. Bart and Jim then go into Grauman's to watch the end of the film, in which Bart announces to the townspeople that he is moving on. Riding out of town, he finds Jim, still eating his popcorn, and invites him along to "nowhere special." Jim agrees to go with him because it sounds like fun (and he's bored). They start to ride off into the sunset on horseback, but stop at a chauffeured stretch limousine and continue outward in the vehicle.
- Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart
- Gene Wilder as Jim, the "Waco Kid"
- Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr
- Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtüpp, the "Teutonic Titwillow"
- Slim Pickens as Taggart
- Dom DeLuise as Buddy Bizarre
- Mel Brooks as Gov. William J. Le Petomane / Indian Chief
- Liam Dunn as Reverend Johnson
- George Furth as Van Johnson
- Burton Gilliam as Lyle
- John Hillerman as Howard Johnson
- David Huddleston as Olson Johnson
- Richard Collier as Dr. Samuel Johnson
- Alex Karras as Mongo
- Jack Starrett as Gabby Johnson
- Robyn Hilton as Miss Stein, the governor's secretary
- Rodney Allen Rippy as Young Bart
- Charles McGregor as Charlie
- Robert Ridgely as Boris, the hangman
- Carol Arthur as Harriet Johnson
- Anne Bancroft as extra in church congregation
- Ralph Manza as man in commissary playing Hitler
Brooks appears in three on-screen roles: Governor Le Petomane, the Yiddish-speaking Native American chief, and an applicant for Hedley Lamarr's thug army (an aviator wearing sunglasses and a flight jacket). He also has two off-screen voice roles, as one of Lili's German chorus boys during "I'm Tired", and as a grouchy moviegoer.
The idea for the film came from a story outline written by Andrew Bergman that he originally intended to develop and produce himself. "I wrote a first draft called Tex-X" (a play on Malcolm X's name), he said. "Alan Arkin was hired to direct and James Earl Jones was going to play the sheriff. That fell apart, as things often do." Brooks was taken with the story, which he described as "hip talk—1974 talk and expressions—happening in 1874 in the Old West", and purchased the film rights from Bergman. Though he had not worked with a writing team since Your Show of Shows, he hired a group of writers (including Bergman) to expand the outline, and posted a large sign: "Please do not write a polite script." Brooks described the writing process as chaotic: "Blazing Saddles was more or less written in the middle of a drunken fistfight. There were five of us all yelling loudly for our ideas to be put into the movie. Not only was I the loudest, but luckily I also had the right as director to decide what was in or out." Bergman remembers the room being just as chaotic, telling Creative Screenwriting, "In the beginning, we had five people. One guy left after a couple of weeks. Then, it was basically me, Mel, Richie Pryor and Norman Steinberg. Richie left after the first draft and then Norman, Mel and I wrote the next three or four drafts. It was a riot. It was a rioter’s room!"
The original title, Tex X, was rejected, as were Black Bart and Purple Sage. Brooks said he finally conceived Blazing Saddles one morning while taking a shower. For the movie's title song, Brooks advertised in the trade papers for a "Frankie Laine-type" singer; to his surprise, Laine himself offered his services. "Frankie sang his heart out ... and we didn't have the heart to tell him it was a spoof. He never heard the whip cracks; we put those in later. We got so lucky with his serious interpretation of the song."
Casting was problematic. Richard Pryor was Brooks' original choice to play Sheriff Bart, but the studio, claiming his history of drug arrests made him uninsurable, refused to approve financing with Pryor as the star. Cleavon Little was cast in the role, and Pryor remained as a writer. Brooks offered the other leading role, the Waco Kid, to John Wayne; he declined, deeming the film "too blue" for his family-oriented image, but assured Brooks that "he would be the first one in line to see it." Gig Young was cast, but he collapsed during his first scene from what was later determined to be alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and Gene Wilder was flown in to replace him. Johnny Carson and Wilder both turned down the Hedley Lamarr role before Harvey Korman was cast. Madeline Kahn objected when Brooks asked to see her legs during her audition. "She said, 'So it’s THAT kind of an audition?'" Brooks recalled. "I explained that I was a happily married man and that I needed someone who could straddle a chair with her legs like Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. So she lifted her skirt and said, 'No touching.'"
Brooks had numerous conflicts over content with Warner Bros. executives, including frequent use of the word "nigger", Lili Von Shtupp's seduction scene, the cacophony of flatulence around the campfire, and Mongo punching out a horse. Brooks, whose contract gave him final content control, declined to make any substantive changes, with the exception of cutting Bart's final line during Lili's seduction: "I hate to disappoint you, ma'am, but you're sucking my arm." When asked later about the many "nigger" references, Brooks said he received consistent support from Pryor and Little. He added, "If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today , they would leave out the N-word. And then, you've got no movie." Brooks said he received many letters of complaint after the film's release, " ... but of course, most of them were from white people."
The film was almost not released. "When we screened it for executives, there were few laughs", said Brooks. "The head of distribution said, 'Let’s dump it and take a loss.' But [studio president John] Calley insisted they open it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as a test. It became the studio's top moneymaker that summer." The world premiere took place on February 7, 1974, at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater in Burbank; 250 invited guests—including Little and Wilder—watched the film on horseback. The film's subtitle on the poster, "or never give a saga an even break! refers to W.C. Fields' film (and motto) "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break".
Blazing Saddles has no dominant personality, and it looks as if it includes every gag thought up in every story conference. Whether good, bad or mild, nothing was thrown out. Woody Allen's comedy, though very much a product of our Age of Analysis, recalls the wonder and discipline of people like Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Brooks's sights are lower. His brashness is rare, but his use of anachronism and anarchy recalls not the great film comedies of the past, but the middling ones like the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. With his talent he should do much better than that.
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and called it a "crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken. Mostly, it succeeds. It's an audience picture; it doesn't have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter while Alex Karras is knocking a horse cold with a right cross to the jaw?" Gene Siskel awarded three stars out of four and called it "bound to rank with the funniest of the year," adding, "Whenever the laughs begin to run dry, Brooks and his quartet of gagwriters splash about in a pool of obscenities that score bellylaughs if your ears aren't sensitive and if you're hip to western movie conventions being parodied." Variety wrote, "If comedies are measured solely by the number of yocks they generate from audiences, then 'Blazing Saddles' must be counted a success ... Few viewers will have time between laughs to complain that pic is essentially a raunchy, protracted version of a television comedy skit." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "irreverent, outrageous, improbable, often as blithely tasteless as a stag night at the Friar's Club and almost continuously funny." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post was negative, writing that "Mel Brooks squanders a snappy title on a stockpile of stale jokes. To say that this slapdash Western spoof lacks freshness and spontaneity and originality is putting it mildly. 'Blazing Saddles' is at once a messy and antiquated gag machine." Jan Dawson of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Perhaps it is pedantic to complain that the whole is not up to the sum of its parts when, for the curate's egg that it is, Blazing Saddles contains so many good parts and memorable performances."
The film grossed $119.5 million at the box office, becoming only the tenth film up to that time to pass the $100 million mark.
On the film-critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 91% approval rating based on 54 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.11/10. The site's Critics Consensus reads: "Daring, provocative, and laugh-out-loud funny, Blazing Saddles is a gleefully vulgar spoof of Westerns that marks a high point in Mel Brooks' storied career."
Hedy Lamarr sued Warner Bros., charging that the film's running parody of her name infringed on her right to privacy. Brooks said he was flattered; the studio settled out of court for a small sum and an apology for “almost using her name." Brooks said that Lamarr "never got the joke."
While addressing his group of bad guys, Harvey Korman's character reminds them that, although they are risking their lives, he is "risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor!" Korman did not receive an Oscar bid, but the film did get three nominations in 1974: Best Supporting Actress (Madeline Kahn, who lost to Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express), Best Film Editing (losing out to The Towering Inferno), and Best Music, Original Song (the title song, which lost to "We May Never Love Like This Again", also from The Towering Inferno). The film also earned two BAFTA awards nominations, for Best Newcomer (Cleavon Little) and Best Screenplay.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
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A television series titled Black Bart was produced for CBS based on Bergman's original story. It featured Louis Gossett, Jr. as Bart and Steve Landesberg as his drunkard sidekick, a former Confederate officer named "Reb Jordan". Other cast members included Millie Slavin and Noble Willingham. Bergman is listed as the sole creator.
CBS aired the pilot once on April 4, 1975. The pilot episode featured guest appearances by Gerrit Graham and Brooke Adams and was written by Michael Elias and Rich Eustis. Elias and Eustis later created and executive produced the ABC sitcom Head of the Class (1986–1991).
Interviewed in 1996, Steve Landesberg said Black Bart "was like a joke. ... We did the pilot, and CBS dumped it at the end of the 1975 season in April or May on a Friday. We thought it was done, then CBS tells us to come back and film six more episodes. And then another six. Six episodes each season, when an order was usually for 24 or 26. I was on Barney Miller by that point, and we'd film during the winter break when all other TV shows were on hiatus. And they never aired any of them. It was like a sick joke. If I wasn't under contract I would have walked, but they were paying me so I can't complain."
In 1989, Louis Gossett, Jr. told Entertainment Tonight, "CBS and Warner Bros. made a deal. ... The deal was that CBS would get to air Blazing Saddles, and any sequels from the movie, in exchange for co-producing a TV show. At the time Warners wanted to make Blazing Saddles into a comedy series of films, a new one coming out every year or so. They wanted to use the model that the Brits had for the Carry On films. But [Mel] Brooks had a clause in his contract that said Warner had to keep producing Blazing Saddles stories, in the movies or TV, or they'd lose the rights to make sequels. The TV show was a way to keep the rights. They didn't have to air it, just keep producing it. So for four years I spent my winter on a soundstage being paid to be in a show that would never see the light of day, just so Warners could keep the sequel rights to Blazing Saddles. By 1979 they finally figured out the market had changed and they weren't going to make any sequels, so we were cancelled, if a show that never was supposed to air can be cancelled."
Mel Brooks addressed the existence of the Black Bart series in 2005: "My lawyers, bless their souls, came to me and said, 'Warner Bros. is going to try and take away your control of the movie. Let's put in a crazy condition that says they can't do any sequels unless they make it right away or make a TV show out of it within six months.' Which is brilliant. They couldn't make a sequel in six months, and the movie was too vulgar to be a TV show. Now it would air in family hour if that was still a thing. So the lawyers put that in, never thinking they'd make a TV show. ... In 1977, three years later, Warner Bros comes to me and says they want to make another Blazing Saddles, and I say, 'No. You don't have the right to do that.' They say, 'Yes we do, we've been making a TV series and still control the rights.' What TV series? I haven't seen a TV show. They take me onto the lot, into a projection booth, and show me three episodes. My lawyers never thought to put in language that said they had to air the damn thing, only that they had to make it. Oy gevalt! Well, management changed and they never did Blazing Saddles 2, and as far as I know they're still making that stupid show to this day."
The first studio-licensed release of the full music soundtrack to Blazing Saddles was on La-La Land Records on August 26, 2008. Remastered from original studio vault elements, the limited edition CD (a run of 3000) features the songs from the film as well as composer John Morris's score. Instrumental versions of all the songs are bonus tracks on the disc. The disc features exclusive liner notes featuring comments from Mel Brooks and John Morris.
In popular cultureEdit
The 2017 animated film Blazing Samurai, starring Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Yeoh, and Ricky Gervais, has been characterized by its creators as "equally inspired by and an homage to Blazing Saddles." Brooks served as an executive producer for the production, and voiced one of the characters.
Possible stage productionEdit
In September 2017, Mel Brooks indicated his desire to do a stage play version of Blazing Saddles in the future.
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The director said he hopes he is able to recreate Blazing Saddles on the stage in the future.
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